Tuesday 28 October 2008

The Wackness

You start to realize that you're old when the first movies come out that live on nostalgia for a period that you actually faintly remember.
In the case of Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness", that period is 1994. The problem of this is, simply speaking, that any movie that is a period piece of New York youth in the 1990s is going to be compared to Larry Clark's "Kids", which of course wasn't a period thing at all, but the real thing. Since there actually are movies capturing the spirit of this period, "The Wackness" has a considerably harder time than a costume movie about the Victorian age has: but on the other hand, this gives the reviewer an excellent opportunity to think about exactly how those Victorian movies might get it wrong too.
"The Wackness" is not a movie that was made in 1994. Just as with any other movie that deals with a time that has already passed, it has to be viewed as something that looks back, that has a lot of more baggage than Clark had with "Kids" because it has so many more years of film making to consider and actually can only be understood within the year 2000, post Apatow, post Wes Anderson mindframe.
The problem with making a movie about 1994 is that this is probably the last period of history that people are going to be able to pin down pop culturally. The few years just before Internet became what it is now and really put an end to this is kind of cultural conscience - for Levine, it's Hip Hop, the soundtrack that carries his main character Luke (Josh Peck), a drug dealing high school graduate who has but one summer in which he has to figure out his future, through the sunny streets of New York. The problem with period pieces: if you try to show that this takes place in a certain period of time, you have to reference. That's the one amazing thing entirely missing from "Kids", still you know that this is the mid 1990s - in "The Wackness", Levinson needs his Adidas sneakers, graffiti-tags and re-imagining of a certain kind of language - Kurt Cobain's death is mentioned, of course. And if you build a movie on that premise, that people are going to feel nostalgic about it simply because you aesthetically and verbally reference cultural driftwood constantly, and then don't back it up with a good story, you fail.
But Levinson doesn't fail. The viewer comes a long way from the first scene, in which a "Forrest Gump" poster on a bus really pushes your nose into 1994. The movie rightfully relies on its three central characters - Luke, the psychologist (Ben Kingsley) he's providing with pot and who is way too fucked up himself to help Luke through his coming of age except for being a bad example of how not to, and his daughter, the beautiful and intelligent queen of the school (Olivia Thirlby) who, during the months of summer, has to go without the social circle that usually defines her and therefore hangs out with the guy she would usually not even talk to, like, ever.
"Kids" ruled love out. It wasn't a movie about love, it was a movie about how kids, not grown up at all, lost themselves in drugs and sex when unattended by their ever-absent parents - and how this, in the times of HIV, could lead to horrible things. "The Wackness" is far from being a Larry Clark movie, even if drug dealer Luke, walking through the city, meetings friends, doing business, looks exactly the same way that those kids did. But he has to deal with ever-present parents, just as everyone. In 2008, we've seen "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Six Feet Under". We've learned that terror starts at home, that the feeling that everybody essentially battles with is being neurotic and in a constant state of melancholia (or, as Stephanie says: "I see the dopeness, you only see the wackness").
So "The Wackness" says more about 2008 than 1994 (hence the "ironic" appearance of Mary-Kate Olsen as a completely wacky pothead) because the certain distortions that this look back in history provides foretells how huge, probably, the cultural shift after the Nineties really was. Luke, who, when the movie finally gets over the references and actually concentrates on character building (which it does very well), is a classic Andersonian character, which previously we might have called a "Holden Caulfield". He says he is depressed to the psychologist, who asks him why and comes to the conlcusion that he is just sad, and thinks too much. Which of course is not treatable by Prozac, it is a state of mind, not an illness.
Squires, the professor, is married to an ever-absent wife who drowns her own problems in several substances. She is portrayed by Famke Janssen. The marriage is dead. The professor is in some kind of midlife crisis and needs Luke's drugs, but really, he is not a very nice guy, so you don't feel compelled to be sorry for him. Luke on the other hand falls for Squires stepdaughter Stephanie, who, as the viewer predicts, is simply bored, besides being really smart and probably intrigued by the "different" lifestyle Luke provides to her upper-middle-class internship and secure college future. "The Wackness" is also about making a career in uncertain times - Luke is earning money so he can go to college, this is his struggle to get out of the chaos his parents made of their lives (they have debts and lost their home). But anyway, he falls for Stephanie and does not listen to Squires when he tells her that she is going to break his heart. She does, eventually, and sadly, the movie is focused on him and she turns out to be a side character, entirely envisioned through his eyes, so we don't really understand her side at all and she just slowly fades out of the movie by the end.
"The Wackness" is a flawed movie, but there are these short scenes which a truthful. Whether the nostalgia really works on an emotional level, I can't say (I could if it was about riot grrrl culture, not about Hip Hop). The acting is excellent, although you kind of wish that Thirlby, after being the sidekick to Ellen Page's overshadowing performance in "Juno", would finally get her own movie. It is an interesting concept, to view the year 1994 in the same fashion we do Victorian England or the 1860s in the American West, filling it with all our clichée views and making it "real" with fashion and set decoration.

2008, directed by Jonathan Levine, starring Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Ben Kingsley, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen. 

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